March 18, 2023

The Legalities of Using Free Stock Photos

By Morkven

As content creators, we all understand the value that visuals hold in conveying messages to our audience. It is why we turn to stock photos to fill in the gaps and add some color to our messages. Thankfully, there are numerous free stock photo sites available online that can provide us with the necessary images. However, the legality of using free stock photos is always a matter of concern.

With the availability of free stock photos, it’s easy to assume that we can use any image we come across without any restrictions. This assumption is far from the truth because, just as with any other form of content, images are subject to copyright laws. In this article, we will explore the legalities of using free stock photos and what is required of you as a content creator when using them.

Copyright and license

Copyright laws protect an artist’s creative work, including photographs. When someone takes a photo, they automatically own the rights to it. Therefore, it is crucial to understand the terms of use of any photo you come across to avoid violating copyright laws.

Licensing is a crucial aspect of stock photography that enables the distribution of images with ease. A license is a legal agreement between the owner of the image and the person who wants to use it. Licenses grant specific rights to the user of the photo, which could range from use for commercial purposes to use for personal projects only.

Types of free stock photos licenses

Free stock photo sites often offer several types of licenses that determine the prohibited uses of a photo. Some of the most common licenses are:

Public domain: Public domain images are photos that the creator has either disclaimed or expired into the public domain. This means that they are free to use and do anything you want with them. However, it is still possible to violate copyright laws using public domain photos, so it’s advisable to check the source and any attribution requirements.

Royalty-free: Royalty-free licenses allow you to use a photo for an unlimited number of times for a one-time fee. However, the images are not entirely for free, and there may be some restrictions on how you can use them.

Creative Commons (CC): CC licenses allow the creator of the photo to dictate how their work is used. There are various types of CC licenses, and each offers different levels of flexibility regarding how you use the photo.

Attribution: Attributions licenses mean that while a photo is free to use, it requires attribution to the creator or source. Therefore, it is always essential to indicate the copyright owner of any image you use.

What you need to know about using free stock photos

While free stock photos offer a much-needed reprieve from the costs of licensing fees, it’s vital to follow the recommended usage guidelines to avoid any legal issues. Here are some things to consider when using free stock photos:

1. Copyright ownership: Do not assume that free stock photos do not have copyright ownership. Always consider who the owner of the photo is and whether the license agreements suit your intended usage.

2. Property releases: Property releases are necessary for photos that include recognizable individuals, tangible items, or any intellectual property. These releases ensure that consent has been given by the involved parties to use the photo in commercial projects.

3. Editorial vs. commercial uses: If you aim to use a photo for commercial use such as advertising, you will need to purchase an extended license. Editorial uses such as news articles have lenient rules for usage, albeit with some restrictions.

4. Photo manipulation: While photo manipulation is an excellent way to get creative with images, it is essential to ensure that you do not alter a person’s likeness or any copyrighted material.

5. Quality: The quality of free stock photos varies significantly across sites. Always take your time to find the best quality images that will positively impact your project.


In conclusion, using free stock photos comes with its fair share of legalities that you must adhere to. Always ensure that you have permission to use a photo, know the type of license applied to the image, and consider how you want to use it. Remember, while free stock photos are a welcome relief for your project, it’s vital to use them legally and respect the copyright of their creators.